Sunday, December 2, 2012

A forgotten mission, fraught with danger

I occasionally scan the Obituaries section of the Telegraph in London.  It places great emphasis on writing good, detailed obituaries, and honors many former servicemen from World War II and other conflicts, so it's a great source of information.

A recent obituary of Kazimierz Szrajer, a Polish flier who served with the Royal Air Force during World War II, was a case in point.  He flew on Operation Wildhorn III (also known as Most III) in 1944, intended to recover vital parts of a German V-2 ballistic missile.  Here's how his obituary describes the mission.

The rocket had failed on a test firing and had come down in a remote marsh area in Poland. But before the Germans discovered its location, it was retrieved by members of the Polish Home Army. The trophy was taken at a time when Allied intelligence knew of the existence of very advanced Nazi weapons, but had few details. So when the Poles contacted London to let them know that they had a virtually complete V-2 rocket disassembled and hidden away, immediate steps were taken to retrieve the most important components.

An RAF Dakota based at Brindisi was fitted with extra fuel tanks so that it could fly to a rudimentary airstrip near the front line in southern Poland and collect the parts and some key personnel. But the RAF also required a Pole who could act as co-pilot and interpreter. Szrajer – one of the RAF’s most experienced special duties pilots – was selected for the operation, code-named Wildhorn III.

The outbound flight departed on July 25 1944, flying over Yugoslavia and Hungary to Tarow, 200 miles south of Warsaw, where the crew identified torch signals from the ground and landed on the airstrip, which proved to be very soft. The rocket components were loaded and five high-ranking passengers boarded the aircraft; but, as the crew attempted to taxi for take-off, the port wheel stuck in the mud. Everything had to be offloaded, and Szrajer organised the partisans of the ground party in an attempt to free the aircraft. The wheel track was stuffed with straw, but a second attempt to taxi also failed. Wooden boards were then laid in the trench, but to no avail.

Szrajer discussed the problem with those on the ground and decided that the parking brake must have locked on. To free the wheel, the hydraulic leads supplying the brake were cut but a further attempt to taxi failed. With dawn breaking, and the noise from the revving engines likely to attract uninvited guests, the partisans dug trenches under the aircraft’s main wheels.

The Dakota’s captain, New Zealander Flying Officer Culliford, made preparations to destroy all papers and secret equipment, and to burn the aircraft should the last attempt to move the aircraft fail. With both engines at full power, the Dakota started to move and it staggered into the air — just clearing a wood. However, the crew’s difficulties were not over. Because its hydraulic fluid had bled away, the undercarriage could not be retracted. The pilot’s report merely stated that the reservoir was recharged “with all available fluids” until sufficient pressure was obtained to permit the undercarriage to be pumped up by hand.

On arrival at Brindisi after a five-hour flight the aircraft had no brakes, and the two pilots had to land on an emergency runway before unloading their precious cargo. The commanding officer of the squadron praised the four-man crew for the “courage, determination and coolness with which they carried out what must be one of the outstanding and epic flights of the war by an unarmed transport aircraft”.

The valuable rocket components were later flown to England, where the Dakota crew were presented with gallantry medals by the Polish Government in Exile. Szrajer receiving the Cross of Valour.

There's more at the link.  I'd never heard of the Wildhorn operations (see the detailed description at that link), and probably wouldn't have without this obituary.  Fascinating stuff!

May Mr. Szrajer rest in peace.  I'd say he earned that the hard way!



Old NFO said...

I think there were a LOT more of these types of operations than we will ever know... And yes, they done GOOD!

Rev. Paul said...

I'd not heard of this operation either. Amazing stuff; that generation was just determined NOT to quit.